By Robert King MAPs, Robert Schweitzer MAPs and S. Giac Giacomantonio MAPS
Psychoanalytically Oriented Psychology Interest Group

UNDERGRADUATE psychology students are usually provided with a lecture or two on Freud and psychoanalysis – but are they getting a fair deal? Anecdotal reports and informal surveys suggest not.

As members of the Psychoanalytically Oriented Psychology Interest Group (POPIG) we frequently encounter students and recent graduates who report unsatisfactory experiences of undergraduate lectures on Freud and psychoanalysis. We have also had the opportunity to obtain informal reports from undergraduates we encounter in teaching roles. Both kinds of reports tell a similar story:

  • Undergraduates often receive their education in psychoanalysis from academics with limited interest in, or understanding of, either classical or contemporary psychoanalytic perspectives in psychology. Some typical comments include: “lecturers are flippant towards Freud…”, “lecturers make jokes about Freud and his theories…”, “…he was sexually frustrated”, and “lecturers say that neither they nor their colleagues can see any clinical value in the work of Freud”. A recent graduate student reported: “I would describe their attitude to Freud and psychoanalysis as both patronising and denigrating.”
  • The material presented is often restricted to (a paraphrase of) classical theory, rather than the contemporary and developing, clinical and theoretical bodies of knowledge, thus conveying the impression that psychoanalysis is of historical interest only.
  • Freud is derided as unscientific and/or unethical, and his psychoanalysis is contrasted with more recent ‘scientific’ approaches or models. Some examples of comments include “they teach it as a dated method that is not relevant today”; lecturers think it is “a little ridiculous” or “entertaining to lecture about” or “relevant from an historical perspective”.

Such lectures are leaving students with a distorted knowledge, both of the contribution of psychoanalysis to psychology as a whole, and of any useful role for psychoanalytic or psychodynamic thinking in contemporary clinical practice.

Many students enter their studies in psychology with a genuine interest in the inner world of the individual and a wish to learn more about unconscious processes. Our experience suggests that such students are disappointed and unsettled by their undergraduate experience and feel they are left with little understanding of any enduring contributions of psychoanalytic theory.

Teaching expertise
Students can reasonably expect that introductory lectures be presented by academics with substantial research and/or clinical knowledge of the field discussed, lest a tendentious position on psychological theory be inadvertently (or in some cases, overtly) presented to students. At the extreme, the teaching of psychoanalysis might come to approximate having a creationist teach evolutionary theory or an atheist conduct a theology course.

Contemporary psychoanalysis ignored
Academics and laypersons continue to discuss the psychoanalytic theory of the 1920s rather than that of contemporary decades, presenting it simply as ‘psychoanalysis’. To be sure, many aspects of Freud’s prolific contributions continue to serve, to some degree, as a guide or point of departure for research in contemporary psychoanalysis (as would those of any founding contributor in most other sciences), however psychoanalysis today continues to be highly diverse both with respect to its theoretical models and its clinical practice environments.

Restricting the teaching of psychoanalysis to last century’s models and theories may imply that psychoanalysis is an outdated area of psychology, rather than a growing, research-intense science in today’s community of scholars and practitioners. It may surprise readers of InPsych to learn that POPIG, which is comprised primarily of clinical practitioners, is the second largest interest group within the APS. A recent search of Medline (arguably the most authoritative index of medical research) using the search terms ‘Freud’ and ‘Psychiatry’ revealed more than 400 refereed publications during the past 10 years. As examples, these scholarly works examine links between psychoanalytic and neurological models, clinical application of psychoanalytic theory and related philosophical and ethical issues.

The derision of Sigmund Freud
Presenters of introductory psychology courses that include psychoanalytic theory are often reported as being derisive and derogatory in their portrayal of Sigmund Freud. Here we find an unfortunate convergence of populism and the academy. Freud is presented as a bad scientist who invented untestable constructs that retrospectively explained everything. Freud is sometimes also presented as drawing people into interminable and unproductive therapies. Often an overt or implicit contrast is made between the ‘poor science’ of psychoanalysis and the ‘scientific rigour’ of cognitive and behavioural therapies.

In evaluating Freud the scientist, it is unreasonable to apply standards of the late 20th century. Such criticism also overlooks the extraordinary creativity and productivity of Freud’s hypotheses and reduces the scientific enterprise to falsification as we understand it today. It is likely that many of Freud’s theories will ultimately fail the test of history, but this is equally true of Darwin, Newton and other pioneers. Selective attention to weaknesses results in a distorted impression of the contribution of major figures in science. To borrow an analogy from Westen: “To reject psychodynamic thinking because Freud’s instinct theory or his view of women is dated is like rejecting modern physics because Newton did not understand relativity” (1998, p334). It is worthy of note that many contemporary investigations of such processes as memory, cognition, the role of emotion and the nature of consciousness are informed by Freud’s thinking.

In evaluating Freud the clinician, lecturers often fail to acknowledge the innovation, flexibility and creativity of Freud’s approach. He refused to see homosexuality as an illness, introduced a time limit on the therapy of the Wolf Man, and was critical of his own technical deficiencies in the case of Dora. He also undertook to treat ‘Little Hans’ through an empowering process of consultation with the child’s father. It is also important to note that Freud was both a champion of women as therapists and argued strongly against the medicalisation of psychoanalysis.

In conclusion, we have concerns about the way psychoanalytic theory and the contributions of Freud are handled in the undergraduate psychology curricula. These concerns are informed by our experience with students and we think they warrant sharing with the profession. However, we must acknowledge that we do not, at present, have access to more systematic data and that it would be unfair to generalise too far on the basis of these impressions. We think that this is a matter that warrants further investigation and would welcome responses from professional colleagues, be they teachers of undergraduate psychology or those who have had recent experience as students.

• Dr Robert King and S. Giac Giacomantonio are from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Queensland; Associate Professor Robert Schweitzer is from the School of Psychology and Counselling, Queensland University of Technology. All are members of POPIG.

Westen, D. (1998). The scientific legacy of Sigmund Freud: Toward a psychodynamically informed psychological science, Psychological Bulletin 124 (3), 333-371.